Sunflower seeds are a favorite snack for many.
In the shell or already peeled, these delicious seeds take care of the munchies anytime of year.
In addition to being tasty and mildly habit-forming, these tasty seeds are a good source of omega-6 essential fatty acids, iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, selenium, and phosphorus — for humans.
But are sunflower seeds a healthy snack for dogs?
Sunflower Seeds Aren’t an Ideal Snack for Your Dogs
Sunflower seeds are a natural choice for feeding your birds, but they aren’t an optimal food for your dogs.
The problem with sunflower seeds isn’t their inherent nutritional value.
A one-ounce (28 gram) serving of sunflower seeds would provide all but the largest dogs a full day’s supply of the previously mentioned minerals plus day’s supply of the B vitamins folic acid, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, and cobalamin plus a day’s supply of vitamin E.
The omega-6 essential fatty acids in sunflower seeds are the fatty acids that support inflammation.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a dog, these pro-inflammatory fatty acids encourage turnover of dead skin. They help keep your dog’s coat shiny and your dog’s skin vibrant.
You could easily give your dog too many sunflower seeds, causing inflammation of the skin, but let’s say you limit servings to about a tablespoon (15 grams) a day.
That amount is OK, especially if your dog’s diet includes a good source of the counterbalancing omega-3 essential fatty acids from foods like salmon.
So, what’s the problem with sunflower seeds for dogs?
Aflatoxin and Sunflower Seeds
Improperly stored sunflower seeds can be contaminated with a carcinogen called aflatoxin. It’s produced by a mold called Aspergillus.
Aflatoxin is potentially deadly to both dogs and people, but dogs are more affected because they have smaller bodies.
It takes a lower dose of aflatoxin to do serious harm to your dog’s health than to your own.
The mold that causes aflatoxin is in dirt everywhere. It can splash up on sunflower plants from the soil when it rains.
The mold won’t always infect the plant, unless it is stressed by drought or insects. Under drought conditions, the mold infects the seed.
Dry weather causes Aspergillus mold to get started in sunflower seeds, but moisture and heat during storage of the seeds allows it to grow. and make aflatoxin
The combination of drought stress and poor storage condition can make sunflower seeds toxic.
How often are sunflower seeds contaminated with aflatoxin?
One study of imported sunflower seed found aflatoxin in 111 out of 173 samples tested.
The amount of aflatoxin ranged from 150% of the amount considered safe to as much as 20 times safe levels.
In 2005, the Diamond Pet Food Company found aflatoxin in their factory in Gaston, South Carolina.
The company recalled 19 products it was selling in 23 states. It turned out that the contamination only found its way into two dog food formulas made on two days.
But the company had to run 2,700 tests to find out which bags of dog food were potentially toxic.
In December 2020 and January 2021, Midwestern Pet Foods recalled three brands of dog, cat, and fish food that contained fatal levels of aflatoxin.
The FDA received reports of 110 pets that had died and 220 pets that were sick from aflatoxin poisoning.
Aflatoxin is reported more often in dog foods that contain corn than it is in sunflower snacks.
But because manufacturers sell fewer sunflower seed products for dogs, they do less testing. Aflatoxin is a problem in seeds of all kinds whether they are organic or conventionally raised.
What can happen to my dog if it eats seeds contaminated with aflatoxin?
Dogs are more susceptible to aflatoxin poisoning than people because they eat the same food from the same container over long periods of time.
As a dog goes through a supply of contaminated dog food or snacks, it accumulates more and more of the toxin.
Aflatoxin can cause liver damage with a range of symptoms, or liver damage with no obvious symptoms at all, at least at first.
Symptoms of liver damage from aflatoxin in your dog include:
- Loss of appetite
- Broken blood vessels in the white the eyes
- Coughing up or vomiting blood
- Dark feces (due to presence of blood)
- Swollen paws
- Swollen abdomen
- Jaundice (yellowish tint to the whites of the eyes, the tongue, and skin
Sometimes dogs die before they develop any symptoms. There are different kinds of aflatoxin, one of which is much faster-acting than the others.
Usually, your pet would have to have been eating contaminated sunflower seeds or kibble for several weeks.
When dogs consume only small amounts of aflatoxin, they may develop gallstones.
They may develop cirrhosis of the liver, but not show any symptoms until some other condition further weakens it. They may just seem to lose their joy of life, with owners never knowing the reason why.
The mold that makes the toxin can grow in your pet’s food bowl even after your pet has eaten all the contaminated pet food.
That’s one reason it is a good idea to disinfect your pet’s food bowl on a regular basis, at least once a week.
You can’t get aflatoxin poisoning from your pet, but you should always wash your hands after handling any kind of seed treats or kibble made with corn or sunflower seeds you give your dog.
What do I do if my dog shows signs of aflatoxin poisoning?
The first thing to do when your dog shows signs of any kind of food poisoning is to stop feeding the suspect food.
If your dog’s supply of sunflower seeds or any other kind of dry dog food has gone moldy, throw it out.
Clean food bowls, water bowls, and the areas where your dog eats and sleeps to get rid of mold spores.
There are things your vet can do to treat aflatoxin poisoning. One is to give your dog N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC).
This compound is also a common nutritional supplement for people. It provides the raw materials for the liver to make antioxidants (glutathione) to detoxify the aflatoxin.
Giving your dog glutathione won’t help, because your dog’s digestive tract can’t absorb it.
Usually, veterinarians give dogs NAC by IV, as an emergency treatment.
Another treatment for aflatoxin poisoning in dogs is another common nutritional supplement, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe).
Your dog would take this by mouth. It helps the liver replace the scar tissue that forms after poisoning with aflatoxin.
This treatment is used so often that there are two brands of SAMe for dogs, Denosyl and Zentonyl.
Vets may also give silymarin (milk thistle extract) to dogs with aflatoxin poisoning. This common treatment for mushroom poisoning also supports recovery from aflatoxin poisoning.
The vet will make sure your dog gets enough vitamin C, vitamin E, and L-carnitine for antioxidant support.
If you were unable to take your dog to the vet, giving dog-sized doses of these common, inexpensive, easy to find supplements is likely to help.
Remember, small and medium-sized dogs don’t need as much of these supplements as people do.
Does all of this mean that no pet parent should ever give a dog sunflower seeds?
The problem with sunflower seeds for dogs isn’t in the sunflower seeds themselves. The problem is potential contamination.
Clean, fresh, dry seeds given in small amounts (up to a tablespoon, or 15 grams) with dog food are fine, as long as they have been shelled first.
Fungal contamination and aflatoxin will linger on the shells of sunflower seeds, so feed your dog the kernels, if you feed your dog sunflower seeds at all.
What about other kinds of seeds?
Many dry dog foods contain large amounts of corn. It may even be the first-listed ingredient. Your dog’s dry food may contain more corn than meat.
In moderation, corn in your dog’s diet will cause no harm. Dogs need a higher percentage of protein and fat in their diets than humans, but they can tolerate up to 20% percent.
Just be aware that from time to time, as recently as January 2021, dog foods contaminated with aflatoxin from improperly stored corn have killed pets all over the United States.
What other kinds of seeds can harbor aflatoxin?
Aflatoxin is not unusual in:
- Sorghum (milo)
- Whole grains of all kinds
Processing does not always kill the Aspergillus mold that makes the toxin.
As a result, there are cases of dogs that have been poisoned by peanut butter, sunflower spread, canola-oil in margarine, and almond butter.
Every year, 25% of the world’s crops have to be destroyed because of aflatoxin contamination. Some contaminated crops pass through the inspection process.
As a result, there are outbreaks of aflatoxin poisoning from dog foods all over the world every few years.
Only products that have been rigorously tested for aflatoxin are safe. You should never give your dog any kind of seeds or seed product that you would not eat yourself.
Aflatoxin in a dosage as small as one part in one hundred million can be fatal to your dog.
To be on the safe side, keep your sunflower seed snacks for yourself and give your dog a chewy, meaty treat.
Other articles you may also like: